The Signaling Power of Occupational Certification in the Automobile Service and Information Technology Industries

Publication August 2004

The continued high visibility of occupational certification programs and their increasing presence in secondary and postsecondary educational institutions raises questions about the value of these credentials for those seeking entry into the workforce. Of particular interest is the message or signal an occupational certification sends to employers of entry-level workers, as compared to the more traditional qualification of a 2-year community/technical college degree. This study used a quasi-experimental research design, presenting 12 fictitious resumes to managers who make hiring decisions for entry-level jobs in the automotive service and information technology (IT) industries. The resumes reflected typical applicants for entry-level jobs with the treatment conditions of education (high school diploma only, 2-year degree, certification, and both degree and certification) and work experience (none, less than 2 years, and 2 to 4 years). A random sample of 202 managers was selected from three United States cities, chosen for geographic diversity. The managers were first given a 2-page, self-administered questionnaire, intended to gather information on their educational background and demographics, and the characteristics of their firm. They then reviewed and ranked the fictitious resumes and participated in a semi-structured interview to further explore the signaling power of certification versus the 2-year degree. Results indicated that the sample resume representing an applicant with both the 2-year degree and certification together with between 2 and 4 years of work experience was selected as the most suitably qualified by two thirds of the automotive industry respondents. Greater variability was found among the IT respondents, who selected the 2-year degree applicant most frequently, closely followed by the certified applicant. IT respondents chose the applicant with the 2-year degree and certification, together with 2 to 4 years of work experience least frequently. The comparison test of signaling power between the two educational qualifications under investigation produced a uniform preference for the 2-year degree over certification, regardless of level of work experience in the IT sample. More mixed results on preference were found among automotive service managers. An investigation into the potential influence of the respondents’ educational background and the characteristics of the firm on the resume-ranking task produced significant results at certain levels of work experience.

Finally, an in-depth, qualitative analysis of 90 (of the 202 in the sample) randomly selected and transcribed interviews provided a deeper understanding of what managers seek in entry-level applicants, as well as the signaling messages sent by education, certification, and varying levels of prior work experience. Implications of the results are discussed for career and technical education policy makers, researchers, and educators, with suggestions for additional studies in this area. 

Bartlett, K. (2004, August). The signaling power of occupational certification in the automobile service and information technology industries. St. Paul, MN: National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, University of Minnesota.

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